Spring Break, Cancun. Hedonism-hungry college students are running rampant in bikinis and surf shorts, downing tequila shots, and scamming anything with a pulse. Inside the control room of ''The Real Cancun,'' coproducer Jamie Schutz is intensely scanning 48 monitors, ready to chronicle every debauched move made by his 16 subjects. On one screen, a blonde is slithering out of a skimpy suit. On another, a bare-chested guy with a killer hangover is burying his head in a blanket.
Across the control room, a muted CNN is displaying images of a city burning; the caption reads ''Baghdad on Fire.'' ''Once in a while, I look over there for updates,'' says Schutz. ''But really, we're all too involved in this soap opera right now.''
Real reality, anyone? Apparently not. While coalition forces were bombing Iraq, New Line (''The Real Cancun'') and Universal (''The Quest'') were waging their own war over who'd be first to theaters with its reality movie about spring break. (Another first: These are the most ambitious attempts so far to bring reality TV to the big screen.) Sunshine, blue skies, six-pack abs, and hot handpicked cast aside, it was not a pretty picture.
Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (the team behind MTV's ''The Real World'') didn't know the half of it when their ''Real Cancun'' production took over Cancun's Baccara Hotel. Round-the-clock cameras uncovered sex (topless twin sisters gyrating against each other), more sex (one housemate offering to pay another $50 to sleep with a girl he'd already dissed), and did we mention sex? (Drunken speeches about the impossibility of finding true love.) The film's unlikely hero? A scrawny nookie novice named Alan. ''This environment isn't breeding a lot of soul,'' says story editor Eric Monsky. ''But we cast people with soul. We have a PG-13 hero in an R-rated world.''
Meanwhile, about 1,500 miles away in Cabo San Lucas, Mike Fleiss (ABC's ''The Bachelor'') and Universal were monitoring their own R-rated world. Unlike Bunim/Murray, Fleiss chose to focus on a group of seven friends from the University of Colorado. ''The Quest'' -- like any respectable teen-sex romp -- offers classic archetypes: the alpha male, the fat funny dude, the player, and, of course, the virgin. Among the 1,000 hours of footage are shots of a guy vomiting on himself, a naked bull's-eye-marked girl dodging water balloons, a group of guys taping their buddy to his bed, and plenty of ill-fated hookup attempts by Eddie the virgin.
None of these images should jar anyone who's ditched college for a week in March (or at least rented ''Girls Gone Wild''). In fact, both teams compare their films to reality versions of ''American Pie.'' But behind the scenes, there seems to be a reality ''Rashomon'':
It was my idea! No, it was mine!
RICHARD BRENER, executive vice president of production at New Line: ''[Bunim/Murray] pitched it to me back in summer 2001, but we didn't get the yes until 2002. We had been talking about this for a year and a half before [Fleiss' movie] was announced.''
FLEISS: ''Mary [Parent, a president of production at Universal] called and said, 'Would you want to do something feature-length?' I said, 'I'd like to get a bunch of friends down to spring break,' and she said, 'I'm buying it.' Two days later, we heard New Line had the same movie.... My ideas get copied. I don't copy other ideas.''